May 26, 2010

Reputation Management and Social Media: How people monitor their identity and search for others online

Online reputation-monitoring has increased – 57% of adult internet users now use search engines to find information about themselves online, up from 47% in 2006;  

Young adults actively manage what they share online –71% of social networking users ages 18-29 have changed the privacy settings on their profile

WASHINGTON – More than half (57%) of adult internet users say they have used a search engine to look up their name and see what information was available about them online, up from 47% who did so in 2006. Young adults, far from being indifferent about their digital footprints, are the most active online reputation managers in several dimensions. For example, more than two-thirds (71%) of social networking users ages 18-29 have changed the privacy settings on their profile to limit what they share with others online.

These findings form the centerpiece of a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project that looks at reputation and online identity management in the age of social media. The report is based on a telephone survey conducted in August and September of 2009 of 2,253 adults, ages 18 and older, including 560 cell phone interviews.

Reputation management has now become a defining feature of online life for many internet users, especially the young. While some internet users are careful to project themselves online in a way that suits specific audiences, other internet users embrace an open approach to sharing information about themselves and do not take steps to restrict what they share.

“Search engines and social media sites now play a central role in building one’s identity online,” said Mary Madden, Senior Research Specialist at the Internet & American Life Project and lead author of the report, “Many users are learning and refining their approach as they go–changing privacy settings on profiles, customizing who can see certain updates and deleting unwanted information about them that appears online.” 

As internet users increasingly post personal information on social networking sites and other virtual spaces, activities tied to reputation monitoring have taken on increased relevance:

  • Monitoring the digital footprints of others has become more common: 38% of internet users have searched online for information about their friends, up from 26% in 2006.
  • People are more likely to be found online: 40% of internet users say they have been contacted by someone from their past who found them online, up from 20% who reported the same in 2006.
  • Social networking users are especially attuned to the intricacies of online reputation management: The size of the adult social networking population has more than doubled since 2006, and 65% of these profile owners have changed the privacy settings for their profile to restrict what they share with others online.

When compared with older users, young adults are more likely to restrict what they share and whom they share it with. Those ages 18-29 are more likely than older adults to say:

  • They take steps to limit the amount of personal information available about them online – 44% of young adult internet users say this, compared with 33% of internet users ages 30-49, 25% of those ages 50-64 and 20% of those ages 65 and older.
  • They change privacy settings – 71% of social networking users ages 18-29 have changed the privacy settings on their profile to limit what they share with others online. By comparison, just 55% of SNS users ages 50-64 have changed their privacy settings.
  • They delete unwanted comments – 47% social networking users ages 18-29 have deleted comments that others have made on their profile, compared with just 29% of those ages 30-49 and 26% of those ages 50-64.
  • They remove their name from photos – 41% of social networking users ages 18-29 say they have removed their name from photos that were tagged to identify them, compared with just 24% of SNS users ages 30-49 and only 18% of those ages 50-64.

“Contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities,” said Madden.

This report is based on the findings of a daily tracking survey on Americans’ use of the internet. The results in this report are based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International between August 18 and September 14, 2009, among a total sample of 2,253 adults, age 18 and older including 560 cell phone interviews. Interviews were conducted in both English (n=2,179) and Spanish (n=74). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. For results based on internet users (n=1,698), the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting telephone surveys may introduce some error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.


About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the internet through surveys that examine how Americans use the internet and how their activities affect their lives. Learn more »